Alessandro Albana, Clash of capitalisms? A Tentative Interpretation of China-Europe Relations

For some time, at least since the end of Maoism and the unveiling of the Reform-era between the 1970s and the 1980s, Europe-China relations were seen with a mixture of hope and apprehension. From the Western perspective, hope was founded on the new course of the Chinese economy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping, whereby China was considered no longer an alien to – not to say a foe of – capitalist development heralded by the Western world. To the contrary, the establishment of the first Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Guangdong and Fujian seemed to set China on the same development path as the capitalist hemisphere, slowly but significantly distancing Beijing from its Asian tradition,[1] and bringing it closer to the West.[2] On a more practical note, the opening-up of China’s market was seen by European and North American institutions, political bodies, companies and traders as an unprecedented source of economic opportunities. Significantly, rather than trying to mitigate such views, PRC authorities did welcome and fed into them. Yet, seen from the West (i.e. Europe and the US), China appeared, to some extent, representative of another political history, social tradition, cosmological view, and there were reasons not to believe that the “otherness” – again, as seen by many in the Western hemisphere – the PRC embodied could have never been fundamentally changed. In sum, from a Western perspective, Beijing’s venture into economic reforms provided positive expectations, but concerns over a prospective, consistent, and comprehensive integration of China’s market into global capitalism still remained.

When, the night between 3 and 4 June, 1989, tanks and soldiers brought to an end the mobilization that flourished in Beijing and other major cities since the early months of the year, Western concerns seemed to have finally become real. Apparently, the Tiananmen massacre disclosed to the foreign world, and to the West more prominently, that for all the reforms that turned China’s economic structure upside down, and despite the past decade was vibrant in terms of the circulation of ideas and, to some extent, even political criticism within China’s society, leaders in Zhongnanhai were far from considering political reforms of liberal influence.

From a different perspective, however, the Tiananmen massacre can be seen as the event that sealed the transition of China’s economy towards capitalism, a process that the Chinese leadership seemed adamant to secure against potential or actual shocks coming from social criticism or political opposition. Whether such oppositions claim democratic reforms, i.e. demand a transition towards the political system that have most effectively guaranteed capitalist development, makes little difference.[3] If, in Deng’s words, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” the same principle can be employed elsewhere: as long as capitalist development is guaranteed, who cares about the nature of the political regime? In fact, soon after the Tiananmen massacre, European countries and the US rushed to provide the PRC opportunities for reconciliation. By 1990, most of the sanctions imposed by the European Community (EC) on China were lifted. In 1991, bilateral relations were fully restored, the European embargo on Chinese arms being the only significant exception.

Throughout the 1990s, relations between the PRC and the newly established European Union (EU) thrived, not only in the economic and trade realm, but also in terms of academic, cultural, and scientific cooperation. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that diplomatic exchanges and political ties were subjected to increasing institutionalization. Fueled by growing mutual understanding, the institutionalization of bilateral relations resulted in the promotion of annual summits starting in 1998, and the officialization of the strategic partnership in 2003. Yet, the rise of China on the global stage raised unease in the West, as demonstrated by the popularization of the “China threat” theory. In the utmost realist display, China’s remarkable development was seen as resting inextricably on the demise of the Western order secured by the US hegemony. But for all the fears and uncertainty that were integral to the bilateral relations, China, and the West – and particularly China and Europe – kept exchanges and communication alive. In Beijing, for instance, concerns over the increasing popularity of the “China threat” theory in the West were a key factor behind the drafting of the “Peaceful Development” (和平发展/heping fazhan) theory. Elaborated by CPC intellectual and political advisor Zheng Bijian, the theory postulated that, while apparently embarked on a path of dramatic development, China was not poised to provide a challenge to the world order, let alone overturn it. The theory, a milestone of the Hu Jintao era (2002 – 2012), represented a crux of a leadership committed to providing the world a picture of China as a cooperative, reliable, and responsible power. Europe, for its part, found increasing interest in potential convergences with China in a world increasingly moving towards a multipolar setting, even while maintaining its criticism over human rights violations and level playing field in the economic realm. Until the 2010s, the picture of China-EU relations was mixed. In this context, as the EU pushed towards increasing engagements with Beijing[4] reasons to hope for improvements, though slow and impeded, were not scant.

Recently, Xi Jinping’s ascent to the top post of the Chinese leadership seems to have had a significant impact on China-EU ties, bringing about a dramatic shift in bilateral relations. Xi’s leadership has been acknowledged as a rupture in the continuity pathway of post-Mao political governance.[5] Yet the reasons behind such a rupture, and its implications for China-EU relations in turn, often appear not to be entirely grasped.

Despite the mounting European criticism towards China that focuses on the traditional issues of human rights abuses and unfair economic practices, it would be more correct to see in the new (or renewed) nature of China’s capitalism – i.e. a model where the existence of a capitalistic market does not translate in the absence of strong state control, thus establishing an alternative to capitalism with liberal characteristics – the core and key factor behind Europe’s unease. By no means such a perspective denies the reality of Xi’s authoritarian turn, nor does it ignore or justify the impact of Xi’s governance on daily life for the Chinese population, and especially for the “low-end population” (低端人口). In the same vein, it would be misleading and deceitful not to recognize that, for at least four decades since the end of Maoism, Europe has tolerated much of what China has done in the (silent) name of the economic opportunities it provided. Would it be remiss to remember that not even the Tiananmen massacre provoked lasting shocks on bilateral relations? And is it trivial to highlight the many controversial (at the very least) international relations Europe entertains, or the EU migration policies delivered through agreements with next-door tyrants or failed states, costing billions of euros and, most importantly, causing pain and death in the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan route?

Under Xi, China’s socialist market economy morphed into a more influential and, to some degree, disruptive form of capitalism compared to the past. From Europe’s perspective, however, China’s capitalism most heinous problem seems to stem from its freshly acquired independence from the paradigms established globally throughout more than a century of liberal capitalism. The fact that Beijing is now capable and willing to develop its own strategic assets in finance, infrastructure, and technology, drives China farther away from the actual or potential exercise of Western control through the existing actors, mechanisms, and governance of the global liberal capitalism. In this light I read many, if not every, major economic and political initiatives of Xi’s China, including the Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路/yidai yilu), the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦/zhongguo meng) of national rejuvenation, and the “Double Circulation” (国内国际双循环/guonei guoji shuang xunhuan). Peculiar to all such endeavors is the intimate relation between the health and safety of national capitalism and Beijing’s – i.e. the CPC’s – capability to adapt and thrive in a changing contemporary world.

The perceived ontological guilt represented by the “otherness” of China’s capitalism, denies exactly what the West and Europe expect from the development of capitalism in the PRC: to bring the country closer to the Western cosmology.  As a result, Beijing is targeted by stubborn requests to “do its part” and behave more responsibly in the global stage. Take, for instance, EU’s criticism over China’s approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beijing is accused of supporting Moscow in its “special military operation,” endangering international security and stability. But since February 25th, 2022 (just one day after the beginning of the Russian invasion Ukraine), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC issued a five-point declaration stating that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected […] and [this] applies equally to the Ukraine issue,” also recognizing Russia’s security concerns over NATO’s eastward expansion as “legitimate.” The declaration goes on to reaffirm other traditional tenets of China’s foreign policy, such as the priority represented by international stability (i.e. bringing hostilities to an end as soon as possible) and opposition to sanctions. Importantly, the document states that China “welcomes the earliest possible direct dialogue and negotiation between Russia and Ukraine” and calls for the UN Security Council to play “a constructive role in resolving the Ukraine issue.” Despite the document providing few surprises to those who are familiar with Beijing’s foreign policy, it is striking to see European authorities and politicians reiterate that China is Russia’s closest ally in Putin’s bellicose pursuit. Later in 2022, according to some reports, several Chinese companies curtailed or even suspended their trade with Russia, and yet Beijing was portrayed by many in Europe as Putin’s best friend against Ukraine. If the reality of the Sino-Russian partnership cannot be denied, it would nonetheless be debatable, at the very least, that Beijing fully supports Moscow in the Ukraine war, as widely believed among leaders, China watchers, and the media in the EU.

All of that provides an enlightening glimpse into Europe’s perspective on China. Regardless of what PRC authorities say or commit to, Europe seems not willing to take the chance of taking it seriously. The main objection here is well known: is China honest regarding its actions and goals? If the question is hard to answer, there seems no reason not to apply equal doubts to other countries’ conduct. If Europe’s ambitions go as far as to expect Beijing to break its relationship with Moscow, for example, there should be serious debate over European leadership capabilities to ground relations with the PRC on realistic grounds.

It would be useful to reaffirm here that disclosing the disjunctions of Europe’s approach to China does not entail the acceptance or approval of the authoritarian turn occurring in the PRC. And for all the conflict between capitalist models, it would be shameless to overlook the bilateral estrangement involving (stated) political values on both sides. It is telling, in this regard, that in early 2021 the European Parliament approved sanctions against China over human rights abuses and the deteriorating socio-political environment in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Beijing reciprocated, going as far as to sanction a German think tank and a number of China scholars. Later, the unraveling of bilateral relations impacted the long-awaited Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Negotiated since 2013, the CAI had finally got everyone on both sides of the table to reach an agreement in December 2020, only to find its ratification opposed by the EU Parliament over the many controversies concerning the 2021 bilateral sanctions. Not surprisingly, economic controversies paved the way for growing political divergence in bilateral relations.

Against such a complicated backdrop, confusion informs a great deal of the European strategy on China. The “Strategic Outlook” released in Brussels in 2019 is telling in this regard: the document portrays China as “acooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rivalpromoting alternative models of governance.” Although the Outlook goes on to urge the EU to enforce “a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach,” it is apparent that China has come to be seen mainly as a “systemic rival” that provokes apprehension and unease in Europe. In this context, individual European countries such as Germany and France for the first time issued their own “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” The EU followed suit in 2021. Unsurprisingly, concerns over China’s play in the region are central for all the three.

Finally, the unraveling of bilateral relations is tangible beyond diplomacy and institutional politics. With only few exceptions, European audiences seem to oppose stronger ties with Beijing, citing concerns spanning political values, economic investments, military security, and even cultural relations. Discrimination and racism against Asians and Chinese individuals in Europe have also become worrisome, especially during the early outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

In Europe, a continent where China Studies has become the subject for an increasing pool of scholars, where Mandarin is becoming more popular as a foreign language to be studied at universities and even high-schools, from where the PRC has attracted a soaring number of emigrants and researchers, one would have expected more distinct capabilities to understand China beyond capitalistic-orientalistic lenses. That such a process is far from occurring anytime soon is telling. And that political leaders and governments sometimes do not refrain from promoting pointless, short-lived, and ridiculous initiatives on China,[6] concurrently showing shallow attitude to design policies based on evidence, inputs and suggestions arising from an even larger community of experts, is all the more concerning. But the chances for Europe to pursue its relationship with China more honestly are not lost. Provided that Beijing will also be willing to reciprocate.


Alessandro Albana is an adjunct professor at the Department of Asian and North African Studies of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He earned his PhD in “Global and International Studies” from the University of Bologna. He collaborates with the Asia Institute in Bologna, and the Fudan Development Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. His research interests span the domestic politics and foreign policy, the political development, and the social movements of China and East Asia.


[1] See Fu, Zhengyuan. Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. According to Fu, “Politics in the PRC cannot be and has not been detached from [its] autocratic imperial tradition. Although the CCP leadership brought new political styles and rhetoric in terms of organization and ideology […] more and more evidence appeared showing the persistence of traditional values underlying institutional and behavioral patterns.”

[2] I expect objections to such a statement. The debate over the nature of the Chinese economic model is vibrant and I would be careful to describe China’s market as purely capitalistic. Yet, I am firmer in interpreting Beijing’s play in the international economy as entirely consistent with, and complementary to, the development of global capitalism. In this regard, the PRC is here portrayed as a capitalistic entity.

[3] In the mobilization of 1989 coexisted several different political claims and ideas, not necessarily advocating democratic transition or the end of the CPC rule. For a comprehensive account of the social groups and political ideas conflating into the mobilization, see Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., and Elizabeth Perry (eds.). Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China. Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2018.

[4] See Cottey, Andrew. “The European Union and China: Partnership in Changing Times.” In The European Union’s Strategic Partnerships. Global Diplomacy in a Contested World, edited by Laura C. Ferreira-Pereira and Michael Smith, 221-44, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

[5] See, for instance: Economy, Elizabeth C. The Third Revolution. Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; Wang, Zhengxu, and Zeng, Jinghan. “Xi Jinping: The Game Changer of Chinese Elite Politics?.” Contemporary Politics 22, no. 4 (2016): 469-486.

[6] The establishment of the “China Task Force” by the Italian government in 2018 is telling in this regard. Whereas the body was tasked with providing support to the government in Rome in order to strengthen economic ties with Beijing, details regarding its membership, assignments and deliverables are shrouded in mystery. At the time of writing, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development webpages on the “China Task Force”cannot be accessed.

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